There's a revolution in the sector's corridors of power. Everyone is taking on responsibility and junior staff are often expected to tell their seniors what to do. Joe Clancy explains
Cathy Walsh believes that introducing coaching for managers is the main reason behind a massive improvement in achievement rates at her college. In 2002, just before she was appointed vice- principal at North East London College in Tottenham, it was rated "inadequate" by inspectors. That year half the students - 70 per cent from a black or ethnic minority background - left without any qualifications. Two years later the place was rated satisfactory at a re-inspection: just one in 10 learners left emptyhanded.
"The culture in the college has changed," Walsh says. "We now have significantly more people who are confident decision-makers, and we now have various teams led by very confident managers. That wasn't the case three years ago. There was a heroic leadership, top-down approach where staff didn't have the confidence to take decisions and didn't want to be seen taking responsibility. And the staff is broadly the same today as it was then."
Walsh and her principal, Paul Head, tackled the problem by introducing coaching for senior and middle managers. "It started to transform the way we led and managed this college," says Cathy. "We didn't talk about problems, we talked about issues and we looked for solutions. In the first year we trained our leaders as coaches and in the second year we trained our middle managers who are now going to coach our curriculum managers.
"I call it the Heineken effect, reaching the parts that other methods can't reach. In a learning community, we can all learn from each other.
"I asked team leaders and curriculum managers: is it right that five out of 10 learners left the college without achieving a qualification? I was trying to equip people with roles and with the skills set to be able to lead their teams and have that discussion with them.
"As senior managers we didn't tell junior managers how to do things.
Instead we discussed things with them and let them come up with their own solutions. It takes the onus off your shoulders and distributes leadership and accountability."
She believes that coaching - one of her coaches was Shaun Lincoln, see story, left - has transformed her own leadership style, and she has had to face the realisation that for the first 20 years working in further education, she was not performing in the right way.
"For me, coaching was the best thing I had ever experienced in my 20-year career," she added. "My previous experience elsewhere had been that leadership was based predominantly around command and control.
"In a well-managed college people comply, but it is my experience that style of leadership takes you to a plateau. It doesn't take you to the summit.
"Before I came here my professional development was based very much around strategic planning and quality assurance. It was more about systems and strategies and less to do with the culture of the organisation.
"My previous learning was done by trial and error. I thought I was being supportive and helping colleagues in listening to their problems and sharing my experience with them.
"It was the way things were done at that time, the way I was managed and the role models around me operated.
"All that does is disempower those people you are managing because all they do is look to you for solutions. Coaching puts that on its head.
"It gives you the skills set to empower that person to come up with the solution themselves. That is when you start getting distributive leadership in an institution.
"By just passing on your own experience you may be stifling brilliant ideas. Coaching does not put that parameter around the discussion; it allows the individual to be creative."